09/28/2014 10:30AM

Watchmaker: Shared Belief forced to show a new side in Awesome Again


Unless you are Victor Espinoza himself, it is impossible to know for certain if his tactics on Sky Kingdom in Saturday’s Awesome Again at Santa Anita, carrying heavily favored Shared Belief ridiculously wide on the first turn and down the backstretch, were 100 percent intentional. But there was motive for intent.

The obvious incentive was to give Sky Kingdom’s uncoupled barnmate, Fed Biz, an uncontested lead and the easiest of trips. But another was to somehow improve the Breeders’ Cup Classic chances of California Chrome by in some way compromising Shared Belief, the Classic favorite.

Espinoza, of course, has been California Chrome’s regular jockey, but after a couple of less-than-stellar rides in the Belmont and Pennsylvania Derby, his hold on this mount might now depend entirely on how California Chrome does in the Classic.

Either way, what Espinoza did in the Awesome Again looks bad. Really bad. It appeared unprofessional. But the good news is, whether completely intentional or not, it backfired. Big time. As a result of the trip Espinoza forced Shared Belief into, it allowed us to see a dimension of Shared Belief we never had seen before. And it accomplished the unusual feat of making a dominant horse like Shared Belief a sympathetic character as well.

That doesn’t happen often. Of course, the trip Espinoza undertook also ruined whatever chance Sky Kingdom had in the Awesome Again. You have to wonder how the owners of Sky Kingdom feel about the ride they received.

But let’s give credit to Shared Belief, where it’s due. Shared Belief was unbeaten and untested in his six prior starts. We didn’t know if he had the character to respond when another horse looked him in the eye. Now we know that Shared Belief also is tenacious as well as brilliant. There is a very good chance that what happened to Shared Belief on Saturday will have the opposite of the possibly intended effect and make him a tougher horse going forward. I believe it will.

Unfortunately, questionable riding also was in play in Belmont’s big Breeders’ Cup Classic prep Saturday, the Jockey Club Gold Cup. For reasons that are not at all apparent on any replay angle, jockey Junior Alvarado on Moreno angled in sharply leaving the backstretch, causing Wicked Strong to clip heels, stumble badly, and throw jockey Rajiv Maragh heavily to the ground. Because it seemed so unnecessary, Alvarado’s move appeared reckless, and it put man and valuable horse at extreme risk. Thank goodness Maragh, whose arm was broken, wasn’t hurt much more seriously than he was because he easily could have been.

This incident marred an otherwise terrific Gold Cup, in which Tonalist and Zivo both ran very well finishing first and second. Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes, but in my view, this was his best performance to date by a considerable margin, thanks to a terrific ride by Joel Rosario. Rosario, whose overly aggressive ride on Tonalist in the Travers received deserved criticism, was patient to the extreme Saturday. And because Rosario waited, waited, and waited some more, it resulted in Tonalist producing the strongest late kick we’ve seen from him.

One other Gold Cup note: Don’t get too hung up on the final time of 2:02.12, which appears slow. For some reason, water was at a premium Saturday at Belmont. The main track was dry and dull, producing kickback you rarely see at Belmont, and progressively got slower as the day went on.

Other Saturday notes

** I understand Beholder missed some training time late at Del Mar, and that probably caused her to be rushed into the Zenyatta, a race she desperately needed to run in if she was going to be at her best in her defense of her Breeders’ Cup Distaff title. But it still was odd how Beholder seemed to give out in mid-stretch of the Zenyatta mere moments after it looked as though she was going to draw away and had to work to prevail. Beholder always has run well fresh. Maybe she really needed this return outing. But I’m having a hard time getting a handle on her performance.

** You have to admire the improvement in Belle Gallantey since she was claimed for $35,000 out of a fourth-place finish in her final start of 2013. She is 5 for 7 since changing hands, and her romp in the Beldame combined with her win in the Delaware Handicap in July to make it two Grade 1 victories this year.

But before saying, “Look out Close Hatches and Beholder,” it must be noted that Belle Gallantey was the beneficiary of two of the easiest trips a horse has ever pulled in Grade 1 races. She absolutely walked on the lead in the Del ’Cap, and she did the same in the Beldame, leaving her a fresh horse in the stretch and enabling her to throttle her competition.

** American Pharoah is good. Really good. He might not have beaten a lot in the FrontRunner, but he certainly did it the right way, and his comparative raw time was strong. American Pharoah went the 8 1/2 furlongs in 1:41.95, 0.24 seconds faster than Beholder did in the race before and 1.50 seconds faster than Angela Renee did winning the Chandelier later on the Santa Anita card. We still have the Champagne and Breeders’ Futurity to come this weekend, but it will take a special performance to threaten American Pharoah’s role as the heavy favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

** Angela Renee was a decisive winner of the Chandelier, and while she might have blossomed finally getting the chance to go two turns as daughters of Bernardini and Deputy Minister mares are likely to do, I’m wondering about the field she beat. While Angela Renee’s distant third in the Spinaway was a throwout as she was against a powerful inside speed track bias, her second before that in the Adirondack was only OK. She was no match that day for Cavorting, and a strong case can be made that third-place finisher Wonder Gal ran better than she did.

** Horses like Main Sequence deserve our appreciation. He’s been involved in street fights in his three U.S. starts -  the United Nations, the Sword Dancer, and now the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, all Grade 1 races – and he prevailed in all of them, courageously, if narrowly.

But as a Twitter follower noted right after Main Sequence prevailed in the Hirsch, this is a gelding whose biggest victory prior to coming to America came in a Group 3 race on Polytrack. Yes, Main Sequence also was second in the 2012 Epsom Derby. But you get the point. Either Main Sequence has improved dramatically on these shores, or he, along with everyone else in the distance male turf division, is ripe for the taking by good Europeans in the Breeders’ Cup.

** That’s a familiar fall refrain, and it holds true in our female turf division, too. Stephanie’s Kitten, who fell short of a European when second in the Beverly D., finally got her first win of the year in the Flower Bowl.

Improved positional speed was the key to Stephanie’s Kitten breaking through in the Flower Bowl. Once a horse who could be placed reasonably close early if circumstances warranted, Stephanie’s Kitten’s positional speed was all but absent in her recent starts. Yes, the Flower Bowl pace was slow. But so were the paces in most of her recent races. Simply put, Stephanie’s Kitten was into the game early, it left her with less to do late, and she got the job done.

** Speed was supposed to be the way Emollient was to win the Rodeo Drive, especially with blinkers on. She instead scored from off the pace, which speaks well of her resourcefulness. But it also says something about the Rodeo Drive field, which was not especially compelling.

** The Vosburgh struck me as a microcosm of the male sprint division this year: A game of musical chairs at the top with no one able to hold on to the No. 1 spot for long.

Palace, who had emerged as arguably the best in his division with two Grade 1 wins at Saratoga, could not reproduce that form. Private Zone, who pretty much had been in the witness protection program the last 10 months, won in game style, just as he did when he won last year’s Vosburgh. At this point, it’s probably a mistake not to expect a completely different name in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

** The heavily favored Itsmyluckyday was given a strange, pace-battling trip in the Kelso, and that, combined with a somewhat flat effort on the horse’s part, set the stage for an upset. Enter Vyjack. But even with a day to think about it, I still don’t know where Vyjack came up with that effort. Vyjack has been around a while now. He’s a known commodity. But he never before won a race over the kind of field he beat in the Kelso.